A horror story

Last week I was astounded by the horrible automobile accident in upstate New York, the worst accident in Westchester County in 75 years. Diane Schuler, 36, was driving with her two small children and her three nieces from a camping ground in the Catskills to her home on Long Island, Her husband Daniel, who had been with her at the camping ground, had gone off for an additional fishing trip. She had driven on this route many times, taking the New York State Thruway. But after she crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge at Tarrytown, she pulled over at a rest stop and called her brother, Warren Hance, the father of the three girls, who also lived on Long Island. She told him she was not feeling well, was disoriented, and was having trouble seeing. He asked her where she was, but she was too disoriented to figure it out. He told her to stay put and he would come pick her up. He immediately left home, driving north, while calling the State Police who began a massive search for her car. Meanwhile, Mrs. Schuler, instead of staying put and waiting to be found, got back in the car and began driving again. She exited the Thruway and drove north about ten miles on local highways. She then entered the Taconic State Parkway on an exit ramp, going the wrong way, despite numerous prominently posted signs on the ramp and on the highway indicating she was driving the wrong way. She got onto the Taconic and began driving in the fast lane, still going the wrong way, while cars kept swerving out of the lane to avoid hitting her. She continued for 1.7 miles in this manner until she collided head on with another vehicle. The three men in the other vehicle, including a father and son, were killed, as was Mrs. Schuler, her daughter, and her three nieces. Only her two year old son survived.

I was absolutely amazed. I had never heard of a person acting like this. The police said there was no sign of intoxication or illness. So what could explain it? A friend mentioned a story she had heard once about a man who had been shot in the head by his son and who continued in his morning routine, pouring a bowl of cold cereal and milk, eating, then going to the front door to pick up the newspaper, at which point he keeled over dead. His brain had stopped functioning, but his body was still performing its habitual actions. Could something like this have happened to Diane Schuler—that her brain had stopped working and only her motor function was still working, so that she was driving like a zombie, a body without a living mind? I thought it was either something like that, or else she was possessed by a demon, like in The Exorcist.

But today’s New York Times has the horrible answer. Diane Schuler “had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 percent.”

To determine how serious that was, I went to Wikipedia:

Unless a person has developed a high tolerance for alcohol, a BAC rating of 0.20% represents very serious intoxication (most first-time drinkers would be unconscious by about 0.15%), and 0.35%–0.40% represents potentially fatal alcohol poisoning. 0.40% is the accepted LD, the dose that is lethal for 50% of adult humans. There have been cases of people remaining conscious at BACs above 0.40%.

The Times went on to report that Schuler’s “blood alcohol level was the equivalent of 10 shots of 80-proof liquor.”

And in addition to the alcohol in her blood,

An autopsy found about six grams of alcohol in Ms. Schuler’s stomach, and a “high level”—113 nanograms per milliliter—of tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive substance in marijuana.

So our speculations were correct in a way. Basically Diane Schuler’s muscles were driving the car, while her mind has ceased functioning. Yet huge questions still remain: why did she keep driving? What possessed her (and I use the word advisedly) to get back in the car and start driving again after her brother had told her to stay where she was until he found her? How did she not realize that she was out of control and was putting herself and her family in immediate mortal danger? And how could a person be able to drive a car for ten miles, negotiating many curves, yet be so drunk that she didn’t realize that she was drunk and must stop? Also, even after she began driving on the fast lane on the Taconic, and other drivers were madly swerving out of her way and honking at her, there was a grassy area to her right onto which she could have easily driven her car and stopped. But she kept going, a 36 year old mother of two turned into a robotic killing machine.

So the story remains a mystery, and I cannot dismiss my theory of demon possession.

Here is the Times article.

August 5, 2009

Tests Show Driver Was Drunk in Parkway Crash That Killed 8


She had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 percent, and even more alcohol still in her stomach, so fresh that it had yet to be metabolized. There were high levels of a chemical found in marijuana, enough to pinpoint her last use at 15 minutes to an hour before her death in the worst traffic accident in Westchester County in 75 years.

For all the misguided and well-meaning speculation about what may have caused Diane Schuler to drive the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway 10 days ago, killing eight people in a head-on collision, the real reason was stark in its tragedy and simplicity: She was drunk.

State Police officials in Westchester on Tuesday released the toxicology results of an autopsy, revealing Ms. Schuler’s state of intoxication at the time of her death, and explaining how the 5-foot-2 woman’s vision and judgment would have been greatly impaired.

The findings betrayed much of what had been known about the accident, as well as the emotions surrounding the loss of eight lives: Ms. Schuler, her 2-year-old daughter, her three nieces and three men from Yonkers. They brought anger from relatives of some of those who died, and confusion from those who insist they saw no sign of any such behavior.

They also raised questions about the police investigation and what, if anything, Ms. Schuler’s husband and brother knew about her physical and mental condition on July 26, both when she left a campsite upstate in Sullivan County that morning, and at 1:02 p.m., when she called her brother’s home on Long Island from her cellphone to complain of being disoriented.

And even as medical evidence laid bare her alcohol and drug consumption, there was little to suggest why Ms. Schuler would drink so much on a Sunday morning, putting at risk herself, her young passengers and anyone who neared her path.

“We were victims the first time, but we feel like we’re being victims all over again because she made that choice,” said Roseann Guzzo, whose father, Michael Bastardi, 81, and brother, Guy Bastardi, 49, were killed in a Chevrolet Trailblazer that was struck head-on by the red 2003 Ford Windstar minivan driven by Ms. Schuler. A family friend, Daniel Longo, 74, also died in the Trailblazer.

“How do you put five children in a car when you’re a mother who’s a drunk?” Ms. Guzzo said. “We’re mothers. I would never do something like that. It’s crazy.”

Few people connected to Ms. Schuler’s family were saying much on Tuesday. In Floral Park, near the home of Ms. Schuler’s brother, Warren Hance, whose three daughters—Emma, 8; Alyson, 7; and Kate, 5—died in the minivan, police blocked off the street to give the family some privacy.

A man who answered a phone registered to Mr. Hance said only, “We’re not commenting.”

At the home of Warren Hance Sr., Ms. Schuler’s father, a neighbor said Mr. Hance was too grief-stricken to speak. “He’s totally broken up,” said the neighbor, who would not give his name. “He just buried all his grandkids. How do you think he feels? He just wants to be left alone.”

For days, officials characterized the wrong-way crash as a mystery, and the lines of sympathy had swung toward Ms. Schuler, 36, of West Babylon, N.Y.

There was talk of the Taconic, an unforgiving, confusing road where the police initially said there were few places for Ms. Schuler to pull over. There was a thought that her behavior might be explained by a medical condition that would resemble diabetic shock.

And there were assurances from the State Police that there was nothing to indicate that drugs or alcohol factored into the equation.

“At this point in our investigation, we have no reason to believe that Diane Schuler was intoxicated or impaired by drugs in any way,” Capt. Michael Realmuto said at a news conference a day after the crash.

But on Tuesday, the State Police revealed not only the results of the autopsy, but also another undisclosed finding: a broken 1.75-liter glass bottle of Absolut vodka in the minivan Ms. Schuler was driving.

Officials said that the bottle, pieces of which were scattered around the minivan, was not found immediately after the accident, in which the minivan was completely charred.

“It was recently found,” Lt. Dominick L. Chiumento said in a telephone interview. “It wasn’t discovered at the time of the accident. We couldn’t really see it. But it was found when the accident reconstruction guys were removing the seats.”

An autopsy found about six grams of alcohol in Ms. Schuler’s stomach, and a “high level”—113 nanograms per milliliter—of tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive substance in marijuana.

Elizabeth Spratt, director of toxicology for the Westchester County Department of Laboratories and Research, said Ms. Schuler’s blood alcohol level was the equivalent of 10 shots of 80-proof liquor. “She would have had difficulty with her perception, with her judgment, with her memory,” she said. “Around that level of alcohol, you also start to get what’s called tunnel vision, where your perception is changed so you can’t see peripherally all the time.”

The case has been ruled a homicide, and officials said a criminal investigation was continuing, although Maj. Bill Carey of the State Police said, “At this point, it appears there will be no criminal charges.”

From the start, puzzlement surrounded the crash.

On July 26, Ms. Schuler loaded her two children, Erin, 2, and Bryan, 5, and her three nieces into the minivan to drive them home from a camping trip in the Catskills. Her husband, Daniel, also left the campground at the same time, with a dog, in his pickup truck, said Ann Scott, the owner of the Hunter Lake Campground, where the Schulers had spent most of their summer weekends for the past three years.

Ms. Scott said on Tuesday that the Schulers seemed normal as they left and that she had never seen either of them with a drink—something she is sensitive to, she said, because she has dealt with a loved one who was an alcoholic.

“When I stopped to say hello to her, the kids were yelling in the car, saying, ‘We had a good time, we’re coming back,’ ” Ms. Scott said. “The husband just waved like he usually did with a smile on his face. She was fine. I said, ‘Have a safe trip home.’ She said, ‘See you soon.’ And that was it. And off she went. It was as normal as apple pie.”

Another question is how or when Ms. Schuler ingested alcohol or drugs.

Using cellphone tower information and E-ZPass records, the State Police have been trying to piece together Ms. Schuler’s route.

Another possible source of information could come from Ms. Schuler’s son, Bryan, who survived the accident. He was still listed as a patient at Westchester Medical Center.

Major Carey said officials still need to conduct additional interviews with members of Ms. Schuler’s family. “At this point we’re getting limited information from the family,” he said. “We’re hoping to get more from them.”

[end of Times article]

- end of initial entry -

Gintas writes:

“Could something like this have happened to Diane Schuler—that her brain had stopped working and only her motor function was still working, so that she was driving like a zombie, a body without a living mind?”

Maybe she’s a liberal, which amounts to the same thing. Our society is that way.

Karen writes from England:

Dear Larry,

Until the revelation of the substance intoxication, I would have guessed Mrs Schuler was epileptic, as many epileptics behave like automatons when they have an “aura ” before a fit. However the alcohol and marijuana explains her behaviour. She must have been used to abusing drugs and thought she could get away with driving. She was probably afraid of being found by her brother on the motor way in a state of intoxication and so just decided to risk driving, believing she could handle drink and drugs as an experienced user and not a novice. Most major accidents are caused by substance abuse.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 05, 2009 10:08 AM | Send

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